Adath Israel’s Linder Archives are a treasure trove of riches waiting to be discovered and explored. Over the last few months, as we celebrate our 100th anniversary, I have been sharing some of the items that illuminate our history. These have been documents, letters, and newspaper articles, but our archives also contain audiovisual materials as well: records, reel-to-reel audio tapes, celluloid film, slides, and cassette and VCR tapes. These formats are obsolete today so with the help of our member Ed Alpern, we have transferred the material to digital files so that they can be shared.
As I was looking through the reel-to-reel tapes, I noticed that one was marked “Side 2 – J Brauer – Youth Aliyah Dinner Ship Exodus”. I was curious, who was this J Brauer? A quick Google search was no help, so I realized I needed to listen to the tape to find out. As the speaker was being introduced, I realized that that his name was not Brauer but Grauer, John Stanley Grauel. Still, I didn’t recognized that name either. Who was this person?
My next Google search returned more information. John Stanley Grauel was a Methodist minister and an American Christian Zionist leader. He was a crew member of the illegal immigration ship Exodus 1947, serving as a secret agent for the clandestine pre-state Jewish defense force, the Haganah. Born in Worchester, Massachusetts, he left his pulpit in Philadelphia to serve as the executive director of the American Palestine Committee in 1943. He was a member of the Mossad LeAliyah Bet, the secret organization whose goal was the illegal immigration in Palestine of Jewish refugees from Europe.
As recounted in an article on the website commemorating clandestine maritime operations before the creation of the State of Israel, Grauel was a key member of the Exodus 1947 crew. His cover was that he was a correspondent for an American Christian publication, but this was a fabrication. His important role was to be a credible witness to the events on board. After the ship was intercepted by the British, who refused to allow the 4,500 refugees onboard to settle in Palestine, Grauel was placed under house arrest at the Savoy Hotel in Haifa. He managed to slip away from his captors and told his story to the assembled journalists in the hotel bar.
The Haganah helped him escape the British and drove him to Beit Kadimah in Jerusalem, a housing complex that I used to pass each day as I walked to the Schechter Institute during my rabbinical studies in Israel. This housing complex was home to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, who were there to decide what to do with the country once the British gave up their mandate. The committee had refused to meet with the Holocaust refugees who were trying to make their way to Palestine, but Grauel was given the opportunity to tell the dramatic story of the boarding of the Exodus and the British attack that killed three people, one crewman and two refugees.
As Golda Meir later recounted, Grauel’s testimony helped turn the tide in favor of the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state because he was a “priest, a perfectly worthy gentile, a priori, no Jewish witness was to be believed.” This Massachusetts minister, hardly known today, helped ensure the future of the State of Israel.
In the years that followed, Grauel told his story to groups, including the Trenton Jewish community, hosted by Adath Israel. Our recording is probably from 1959. In his speech, Grauel mentions the recent publication of the novel Exodus by Leon Uris and the upcoming film of the same name directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman. Grauel charms the audience with his jokes, his heavily accented Yiddish and Hebrew, and his humorous asides. At one point he lets the audience know that “for three days I wrestle[d] with a mental picture of Elizabeth Taylor in a mikveh, and I admit it was almost too much to take.”
Beyond the humor, the audience was captivated by this minister who had risked his life for the Jewish people, a community of which he was not a part. Even 12 years after the events, he was still passionate about doing what was right for Jews all over the world. He had rather choice words for Uris’s novel, taking issue with its historical accuracy and literary merit. At one point he offers that he doesn’t think the book will be “a modern classic for the next 1000 years” but is clearly happy that its success has brought the story of the Exodus 1947 back into the cultural consciousness.
Grauel tells the audience that people ask him who the fictionalized characters represent in real life. Some of them he knows, but others he is puzzled about. He jokes that when people ask him who he is in the book, he tells them Kitty Fremont, the non-Jewish American love interest played in the movie by Eva Marie Saint. Eventually he gets to the casting of the film and jokes about the middle-aged Frank Sinatra playing a 17-year-old (the role ultimately went to the 20-year-old Sal Mineo).
In his speech, Grauel is highly critical of the British and their colonial policies, but he doesn’t spare America from his critique either. He notes Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ ties with German industry before, during, and after World War II. While these asides are interesting, the heart of his speech, and presumably the reason the audience attended, was to hear Grauel’s account of his journey aboard the Exodus, which he begins at the 29th minute. His powerful personal testimony is an important moment of history told in our synagogue over 60 years ago.
There is also a local connection to Grauel. Later in life he lived in the town of Roosevelt, only about 20 miles away. Our member, Bill Agress, who lived in Roosevelt, remembers knowing Grauel during his time there. When I asked why a Methodist minister would want to live in a town with a synagogue but no church, he speculated that after his heroic actions to create the State of Israel, he preferred to live in a Jewish community.
Bill had always thought that Grauel was buried in Roosevelt. However, he is actually buried in the Alliance Church International Cemetery on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem, another site I would pass frequently when I lived in Israel. The fascinating story of his burial in 1986 is told by Paul Shaviv, the Director of the B’nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem at the time. The headstone found in the Roosevelt cemetery is a direct copy of the one at Grauel’s grave in Jerusalem, but as Find a Grave notes, it is a cenotaph.
At the end of his speech, Grauel tells the story of his return to Israel and meeting with a young man who was a child on the Exodus in 1947 and who was now teaching in the Youth Aliyah program. Grauel hopes for the day when one of the children saved from the ashes of the Holocaust might ascend to the office of president or prime minister of Israel. His final words express the notion that the rescue of any refugee creates the possibility of transformation as he quotes from the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) in a line that appears on both his headstones: “He who saves a single life … is as if he had saved the entire world.”